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Seppo Pohjola: Symphonies 1 & 2

Pohjola / Finnish Radio Sym Orch / Oramo
Release Date: 01/08/2013 
Label:  Alba Records   Catalog #: 339   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Seppo Pohjola
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Multi 
Length: 1 Hours 1 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.

POHJOLA Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 Sakari Oramo, cond; Finnish RSO ALBA 339 (SACD: 60:47)

If you feel neglected, I once heard, just think of Whistler’s father. Well, here we are presented with Pohjola himself, and not his famous daughter. (If you’re not a fan of Sibelius’s music, just ignore everything I’ve written up until this point….) I suspect that in Finland, Read more the family name Pohjola is about as common as Anderson is in the U.S., but regardless, here is a pair of brilliant symphonies by one of Finland’s now middle-age composers, born into the generation that followed the one that contained such luminaries as Einojuhani Rautavaara or Aulis Sallinen.

Pohjola, born in 1965, studied with Olli Koskelin, Paavo Heininen, and Erkki Jokinen. Prior to this CD, I can recall only hearing his Three Pieces for String Trio in my formerly huge collection, and it was long enough ago, that I do not remember the piece. So, putting this CD into my player, I approached the composer as a tabula rasa. I was blown away.

The first symphony of 2002 springs from a personal tragedy—the death of the composer’s two brothers—and is dedicated to their memory. Its opening comes out of nothing: The CD played for a full 10 seconds before I could hear anything at all. The opening is quite static until an eighth-note figure begins to intrude at around the four-minute mark. A minute later, the 8ths become 16ths, and the pace and activity continues to develop with tonal figures tossed around among the woodwinds, accompanied by subtle strokes on the timpani. Indeed, the fairly secure tonality of this work was a bit surprising, considering Pohjola’s teachers. (If you want to know what I mean, check out Jokinen’s First String Quartet on the Fuga LP label.) In his younger days, apparently Pohjola was quite the avant-gardist, but some years ago, the composer re-examined his musical aesthetic, and shifted in the direction of his long-time musical hero, Maurice Ravel.

Now, no one will mistake this music for that of the French master, but harmonically, this symphony doesn’t go far beyond Sibelius. There, however, the resemblance ends. The driving rhythms and pulsating textures heard here are nowhere to be found in the oeuvre of Finland’s musical grandfather. The first movement of this four-movement work ends with a whirlwind finale, and the beginning of the second movement recapitulates the silence of the opening of the first. Here, though, the pianississimo lasts somewhat longer before something audible as music grows out of the near-silence. A plaintive line in the oboe floats above the string sonorities in haunting fashion and luminous beauty. Eventually a solo clarinet takes over the line in one of the most gorgeous settings I’ve ever heard, with interjections by pianissimo chimes. In the third movement, the proceedings work up to a magnificent climax, with vigorous activity throughout the orchestra. This movement, more than any other, and perhaps because of its accompaniment by a very persistent snare drum, reminds me of Carl Nielsen, although Pohjola retains his own voice throughout. The last movement, a vigorous exercise with the drive of Hindemith in his Concerto for Orchestra, displays both the virtuosity of its composer and the musicians who play his music. Something about the flourishes in the woodwinds may remind the listener of similar devices in the orchestral music of William Schuman, albeit with a bit less parallel motion than Schuman employed. Through the course of the symphony, the composer quotes Beethoven’s An die Freude as well as snippets from works of Wagner and Tchaikovsky. I did not recognize the quotes, but the program notes state that they’re there, so I won’t dispute. The symphony ends joyfully in the life-affirming key of E Major. This music is excitement personified, and ought to win this composer a lot of admirers—and performances.

Pohjola’s Second Symphony followed closely on the heels of the First, and maintains a lot of similarities to the First, including the very quiet opening. This symphony differs from its companion, however, in its greater use of discreet orchestral choirs. Indeed, Pohjola’s teacher, Jouni Kaipainen (the author of the notes on this CD) asked him why he hadn’t called the work a Concerto for Orchestra. If he had so entitled it, no one would have questioned his choice. The work is shot through with evocative orchestra colors, aided by his generous use of instruments, such as harp, celesta, piano, and marimba.

Indeed, this composer’s ear for color, combined with his inventiveness, sets him above the mass of composers of our time. This is inspired music of the highest caliber, and belongs in the collection of any serious devotee of contemporary music. The disc receives my highest recommendation, and will be a strong Want List contender, not only for the music, but for the superb performances offered by Sakari Oramo and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, as well as the superb sonics on this Alba Super Audio CD. Do not pass this one up!

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
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Works on This Recording

Symphony No. 1 by Seppo Pohjola
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Written: 2002 
Venue:  Kulttuuritalo, Helsinki 
Length: 10 Minutes 23 Secs. 
Symphony No. 2 by Seppo Pohjola
Conductor:  Sakari Oramo
Written: 2006 
Venue:  Kulttuuritalo, Helsinki 
Length: 10 Minutes 22 Secs. 

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